It’s all done with mirrors (well, glass actually)

Now here’s an interesting thing. The new pop video for Paul McCartney’s Dance Tonight, just published on YouTube, has been directed by Michel (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) Gondry, and stars Mackenzie Crook and Natalie Portman. And it’s quite a jolly tune with a mandolin. So far so inconsequential, but what is of interest here is that the video employs the Pepper’s Ghost trick, which is of great importance in ‘pre-cinema’ history. Pepper’s Ghost was a clever Victorian stage effect (devised by ‘Professor’ John Henry Pepper) employing glass, mirrors (sometimes) and lighting to make objects – usually ‘ghosts’ – seem to appear on stage. It holds an important place between the Phantasmagoria magic lantern show and the cinema. The trick was achieved by placing a figure off stage, and so lighting it that the light-waves bounced of an angled sheet of glass to create the illusion of the figure appearing in ghostly fashion on a stage. Like so:

Pepper’s Ghost

The McCartney video employs glass in much the same way to produce its ghostly effects. One would suspect that it was all done in post-production rather than ‘in the camera’, but production footage on would seem to suggest that they did indeed use glass (not mirrors). It could have been done a whole lot more easily with post-production trickery, but it was clearly done for the delight of the filmmakers – and the publicity.

Pepper’s Ghost inspired the appearance of ghostly figures in many early cinema trick films, though the process itself was not employed directly in films – with one exception, an obscure process called Kinoplastikon. More on that another day…

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 8

Alacazar, Edmonton

We come to the eighth and last instalment of the series of extracts taken from the c.1912 guide How to Run a Picture Theatre. We have covered selecting and fitting out the building, taking on staff, and putting together an effective programme. The last thing to consider is the licence.

In January 1910 the Cinematograph Act was introduced, the first piece of government legislation directed at the new film and cinema industry. Previously, cinema had had to be licensed under schemes designed for music or theatre performance, though the majority of them chose to avoid such bureaucratic necessities (there are even some examples of cinemas that put on purely silent shows, to avoid the demands for a music licence). The unregulated nature of the industry, and in particular the threat that such venues posed as a risk risk, led to the drafting of the Cinematograph Act. Despite its ‘compulsory’ nature, there were many cinemas which chose to ignore the new scheme and pay the fines, as Jon Burrows’ recent research into cinemas in London pre-1914 has shown. But the coming of the Cinematograph Act ultimately encouraged the huge boom in cinema construction that swiftly followed its publication. There were 4,000 cinemas in Britain and Ireland by the end of 1914.

Obtaining a License. The Cinematograph Act 1909. Under the Cinematograph Act, 1909, it is compulsory that every place to which the public is admitted, where exhibition in which inflammable films are used, shall be licensed …

It is not, however, necessary to obtain a license for premises used not more than six days in a year for a kinematograph exhibition provided that notice of such shows are given to the County Council or the Chief Police Officer, but these occasional exhibitions must confirm to the regulations …

The penalty for using an unlicensed building for an entertainment which comes within the meaning of the Cinematograph Act is a fine not exceeding £20, with a penalty of £5 per day as long as the offence continues, and power is given to the authority to revoke the license.

Music and Dancing License. Every kinematograph theatre in which music is employed – except such music be provided by automatic means – must possess a music and dancing licence.

In the case of premises situated in the Administrative County of London these are granted in November of each year …

All eight parts of How to Run a Picture Theatre can be accessed here.

(The photograph shows the Alcazar in Edmonton, one of the new breed of super-cinemas, which seated 2,000. It opened in 1913, and the poster outside advertises the British & Colonial epic The Battle of Waterloo, released in that year.)

Education, education, education

Some new additions to The Bioscope Library. A prominent theme in the silent era was the use of films in education. It was driven by a mixture of idealism and commerce, but mostly by the evident appeal that motion pictures had for children – a challenge to authorities in every sense. An enthusiastic period in the 1910s, when many advocated the motion picture as an essenial tool for educating the young was followed by a period of experiment and analysis in the 1920s, determining the pedagogic value and the pitfalls. Many specialist producers in educational film then sprang up, exploiting the new 16mm film format for non-theatrical exhibition, riding on the bandwagon of what was labelled Visual Education.

Ernest Dench’s Motion Picture Education (1917) is a rambling but enthusiastic guide, which considers the potential for film to teach history, arithmetic, natural history, domestic science, even handwriting. There is some grasp of the theoretical side, and warnings that film is no substitute for text. Dench reveals how the great passion for films among young audiences was taxing authorities, which sought to master a medium they did not fully understand. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.3MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (351KB) formats.

Don Carlos Ellis and Laura Thornborough’s Motion Pictures in Education: A Practical Handbook for Users of Visual Aids (1923) is one of the standard guides of the period. It is designed as the essential handbook for the teacher needing to the how and why of using film in the classroom. In good common-sense fashion it covers the history of educational film, the objections raised against its use, the advantages of using the medium, the kinds of films available, the practicalities of exhibiting them, and examples of their successful use. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (7.2MB), PDF (34MB) and TXT (515KB) formats.

Also in an instructional vein are two further books added to the Library. The year before his book on education, Ernest Dench wrote Advertising by Motion Pictures (1916), a fascinating, if discursive guide to the potential of the motion picture for purposes of advertising. Dench covers the selling of railroads, food products, agricultural machinery, shoes, real estate, newspapers and dry goods through motion pictures. He covers different approaches for different kinds of audience (working classes, farmers), and different media, with particular attention given to the use of advertising slides. Some of it is aimless speculation, like the chapter on naming soda fountain concoctions after movies, but its enthusiasm is appealing and it paints a useful picture of they ways in which the cinema industry engaged with the American audience in the early years of cinema. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.2MB), PDF (23MB) and TXT (207KB) formats.

Lastly, there’s Hugh C. McClung, Camera Knowledge for The Photoplaywright (1920). This pamphlet offers a simple guide to the technology and practice of cinematograph for the would-be writer of screenplays. McClung was a cinematographer himself, with Gaston Méliès, Willian Fox, Triangle, Douglas Fairbanks and Famous Players-Lasky. The chief intent of the booklet is to make writers “think in pictures,” and in between the general pleas for appreciation of the hard work that went behind the making of pictures, there are some interesting anecdotes which bring to life the practicalities of the business. Available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (604KB), PDF (2.2MB) and TXT (37KB) formats.